by Robert Ferringo - 01/04/2006
Heading into Wild Card Weekend, I wanted to take a look at a theme in each of the four matchups that may not be getting a lot of press, but could be worth keeping an eye on:
Matt Bryant vs. John Hall
I think that Washington/Tampa Bay will be a close, low-scoring affair. If that's the case, the outcome could be decided by whichever kicker performs better in the clutch. Hall has hit on 10-of-11 field goal attempts (91 percent) when the score is within a touchdown. Bryant is 13-of-17 (77 percent) in those situations, and had a 29-yard miss earlier in the year against Chicago that could have forced overtime.
Bengals offensive line vs. Pittsburgh linebackers
Cincinnati was one of only two teams that returned all five starters along the offensive line. The result was a team-record of only 21 sacks allowed this season. For the Steelers, blitz-backers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans combined for 19.5 sacks this season, tops for a linebacking duo. If the Steelers want to disrupt the Bengals offense, they'll have to get to the quarterback.
Giants secondary vs. Panthers "other" receivers
The Giants secondary is ranked 27th in the league, and has been victimized for 224 yards per game. Second-year corner Curtis Deloatch and rookie Corey Webster have been shaky at times this year, and will be matched up against Keary Colbert and Ricky Proehl. Colbert has been a disappointment (12 catches since Nov. 1) but Proehl has been money in the postseason his entire career. Whichever duo performs better will likely be moving on.
Jacksonville vs. history
The Patriots are going for a record 10th consecutive playoff win, they've won 25 of their last 28 in Gillette Stadium, and Tom Brady is 20-1 when the kickoff temperature is 40 degrees or less. The temperature around kickoff will likely be around 20 degrees. That generally spells doom for warm weather teams heading into winter conditions.
Here are my Power Rankings headed into Wild Card Weekend (odds to win the Super Bowl in parentheses):
1) Indianapolis (1-to-1) - I said back in October that no one could beat them on turf. I was obviously wrong, because San Diego managed to do just that. But I'm going to say that the loss was an anomaly. They are beatable because they're still soft, and because Peyton Manning is the NFL's A-Rod. However, it's still going to take a Herculean effort to go into the RCA Dome and end their season.
2) Denver (15-to-2) - Mike Shanahan deserves a lot of credit. His gamble on the entire Cleveland defensive line was laughed at, but paid dividends for the NFL's 2nd-ranked run defense. However, that crew only managed 28 sacks, third-worst in the league. The only way to beat the Colts will be for them to get to Manning.
3) Seattle (7-to-1) - The Seahawks are 3-1-1 ATS in their last five games. Heading into the playoffs, the Seahawks primary concern has to be a secondary that has allowed 926 passing yards in its last three games. However, Marcus Trufant and Andre Dyson should be back next week.
4) Pittsburgh (18-to-1) - The Steelers are 6-2 against the Bengals over the last four years, and are 6-0 all-time when facing a divisional opponent in the playoffs. In the first game against Cincy they outrushed the Bengals 221 to 91. In the second game, however, they were outrushed 102 to 95. In fact, the Steelers were outgained on the ground in each of their five losses.
5) Chicago (10-to-1) - Terrence Metcalf's sprained knee is still acting up, so expect Roberto Garza to start at right guard in Chicago's opener. Mike Brown should be 100 percent by then, and Cedric Benson appears to have come all the way back from his knee injury. Lovie Smith took a chance last week by electing to sit Grossman instead of giving him some game reps. I don't like that decision.
6) New England (6-to-1) - Remember last year when all the bobble heads were up in arms about the possibility of a division winner with a worse record making the playoffs over an eligible wild card team? Where was the public outcry over the fact that Kansas City (which beat New England head-to-head and finished with the same record) is out and the Patriots are in?
7) Cincinnati (25-to-1) - The Bengals are home underdogs (+3) in this game because of they way they backed into the playoffs. Cornerback Deltha O'Neal, DT Bryan Robinson, and LT Levi Jones were all upgraded to probable for this weekend's games, meaning the Bengals would be nearly 100 percent.
8) Tampa Bay (27-to-1) - The Bucs have won five in a row at home against the Redskins. That streak includes Tampa's 14-13 win over the Skins in 1999 -- the last time Washington was in the playoffs. When these two met on Nov. 13 the total hit 71 points. I would be amazed if it were anywhere near that again.
9) Washington (28-to-1) - Against common opponents this season (Chicago and San Francisco), the Redskins were 2-0 while the Buccaneers were 0-2. However, the fact that Tampa Bay beat Washington when they met head-to-head cancels that out. The Redskins have averaged nearly 160 rush yards over their past three games.
10) Carolina (20-to-1) - I think that Team Schizoid has the talent to win in the Meadowlands, but it depends on which team shows up. Jake Delhomme has a 106.1 passer rating, with 6 TD's and 1 INT, in four career playoff games. He is 3-1 in those starts. Also, the Carolina defense was one of just three to finish in the top 10 overall, against the rush, and against the pass.
11) Jacksonville (50-to-1) - The Jags have scored 30+ points in four of their last eight games. Leftwich gets the nod, and the team is 8-3 in his last 11 starts, including four in a row. The Jags are also 10-1 when Leftwich throws two or more touchdowns. He could meet that number facing that decimated Patriots secondary. Mike Peterson and Reggie Hayward each sat out of practice on Wednesday, and are 50/50 to play on Saturday.
12) New York Giants (25-to-1) - Jeremy Shockey's ankle will be fine for this weekend, but the Giants still have major problems with their front seven. Defensive tackle Fred Robbins is the most recent player to be injured, and is listed as day-to-day. The Giants will have a huge advantage in special teams, which could make the difference.
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The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's football picks service.